In which I Muse on Things I Assume Every Parent Knows, but Apparently not.

Heinlein quote

The English word “spoil” is ultimately derived from the Latin word spoliare and comes down to English via the Old French word espillier. What is interesting about all the different forms of the word throughout history is that one common theme emerges: violence. “Spoil” as a verb referred “to stripping someone (usually an enemy) of clothes; to strip, plunder, pillage.” As a noun, “spoil” referred to the results of what was taken by this act of violence.

Why do I begin here? Today we most commonly apply the word “spoil” to two categories: food and children. What is interesting to observe is that these two categories “spoil” in opposite ways: food by neglect, children by indulgence. When we ignore and “under-care” for food, it spoils. Contrariwise, when we mollycoddle and “over-care” for children, they spoil.

But what does it mean to “over-care” for or pamper a child and why does this lead to spoilage?  The answer rests in the nature of growth. We might, to continue the analogy, spoil food before it reaches maturity in a similar way. We might over-water it, over-feed it, over-expose it to sunlight, and so on. If we are poor gardeners we might lavish a plant with things that it legitimately needs to grow, but given to excess, kills it. We might even do this out of love. That is, we so love our green beans that we lavishly spread manure over them, but give them so much that we suffocate them. No one who did this to plants could be said “to love” his green beans; so too with children. Both plants and children need the right amount of nutrients to grow, but no more. Both plants and children must be worked on to grow—they must be weeded, they must be pruned. They must be cultivated, which might include activities that each find disagreeable.

It is quite understandable that parents would want to protect their child. But when that protection is aimed at the elimination of all suffering, the parent—in a serious way—does violence to the child (i.e., spoils the child). We live at a time when people view childhood as a time set aside for delight, for play, for the care-free life spent skipping amongst the daisies, and splashing in pools. We must not, so the thinking goes, impose upon the child discipline and training and force the child to “grow up too fast.” Children must not be made to suffer these things. We must not spoil their childhood.

It is certainly understandable why some parents have this point of view. When we’re children, all we want to do is grow up, right? We want to be older. We want to do what the grown-ups do. We want to sit at the grown-up’s table. Who likes to sit at the “kids table?” Yet, once we grow up, we find that it’s not all it promised to be. There are debts to pay, yards to mow, laundry to wash, meals to cook, careers to advance, spouses to please, neighbors to keep up with. And faced with such undesirable circumstances, we tell our children, “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” So, we want to protect our children from all this. Perhaps we don’t want them to grow up, because we don’t like what growing up looks like. So, we give our children everything they want to protect them from all these undesirables.

No one, however, who thinks this way about their children, can be said to love their children. For this approach merely keeps the child as a child, which is unnatural. The child’s desire to “grow up” is natural and must be nurtured, not impeded. To lavish the child with everything he or she wants is to keep the child in a state of perpetual youth. Is this not what we mean by a “spoiled brat?” And when the child is given everything he wants, he cultivates within the mindset of “I will do what I will do, and no one will tell me otherwise.” This seems to have become the mantra of a large portion of our culture, and it is the mantra of perpetual childhood. It is the mantra of a wealthy era. For only the child expects to get whatever they want, do whatever they, and say whatever they want without consequences. This is the false process of a shallow freedom defined only as “lack of restraint.”

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But true freedom is the ability to live according to one’s nature: to be able to live and act without a ruler and an overseer. But this requires great training, great discipline, great pain. The parents who truly love their children would be willing to see their children suffer so that those children might grow into healthy adults.

In our culture we often consider struggle as a sign that there is a problem. When a student is “struggling” with his or her homework, either the homework is too difficult or there is something wrong with the student—a learning disability perhaps. But why make this assumption? When I see a student struggling to understand, I rejoice. To me, this is a sign not that there is a problem, but that the student is thinking. Muscles must strain to grow. Iron must be hammered to be shaped. Friction must be achieved to sand wood. The mind must struggle with things it does not understand in order to come to an understanding. What really worries me are the students who aren’t struggling, because this is a sign either that the student already does understand (and so what is the point of the lesson) or that the student is indifferent and so no learning occurs.

Of course, we must do the right exercises too. Anyone who works in fitness and health will tell you that much damage can be done when exercises are done improperly. And much of what goes on in modern education would count as “damaging exercises.” But that’s not exactly my topic at the present. What is of more concern here is that we often find educators and even adults, avoiding tasks because they are “difficult.” For example, so many adults I meet refuse to read Shakespeare because it is “over their heads.” To this, philosopher Mortimer J. Adler answers:

Whoever passes by what is over his head condemns his head to its present low altitude; for nothing can elevate a mind except what is over its head; and that elevation is not accomplished by capillary attraction, but only by the hard work of climbing up the ropes, with sore hands and aching muscles.

We mustn’t give our children “what they can handle.” We must give them “more than they can handle” so that they can grow ever stronger and stronger. Adults who refuse to grow can never, without the charge of hypocrisy, expect children to grow.

We must be stronger than our children. We must be strong enough to say “no” to their desires because they are not yet strong enough. But to do this, we must be strong enough to say “no” to our own desires. And perhaps, as the Bard said, “there’s the rub.” Perhaps we give our children all they want because we ourselves are still children. Perhaps we are not yet strong enough to rule ourselves. Perhaps we are not willing to be exact and demanding with ourselves, so we cannot do so with our children.

So, will we? Will we ourselves “grow up” and stop spoiling ourselves and our children? Are we willing to see ourselves suffer and our children suffer that we might be something greater than we are now? Or will we continue to indulge ourselves like children and remain in a state of perpetual immaturity demanding to have the world bend to our wills?

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And by “suffer,” of course, I do not mean “abuse.” Clearly, that would go against all that I’ve stated here. Certainly there is an opposite error that some parents have made whereby they use abuse and punishment for the “good of the child.” Certainly not all discipline, training, and punishment is up-building; but neither is all discipline, training, and punishment harmful. As I’ve argued here, it can, in fact, be quite loving. Where is the line? Let that be the topic for another post.

For now, let us focus on not spoiling our children, on not plundering and pillaging them by lavishing them with all they want. Let us discipline them and help them grow. Let us cultivate them into the adults they are intended to be.

Students Are a Lot Like Dogs

Now that school is over I spend much more time with my dogs than with my students. It occurred to me that students and dogs share a few characteristics:

  1. They want constant affirmation.
  2. Their favorite thing in the world is “to go outside.”
  3. They always want to be let out to go to the bathroom, but when they go all they do is wander around.
  4. They can be made happy simply by giving them a treat.
  5. They always look at you confusedly even though you’ve told them the same thing hundreds of times.
  6. When they are left alone they are either (a) getting into trouble or (b) sleeping.
  7. They are completely distracted by something as simple as a squirrel.
  8. They get really excited when someone new enters the room.
  9. They don’t clean up after themselves when they make a mess.
  10. Once they start making noise, it’s nearly impossible to get them to stop.

Of course, there is one BIG difference:

My dogs get really excited when I walk into the room.

The Christian Never Multi-Tasks

It is a not uncommon notion in our busy lives that we are told we need to “prioritize,” or “put our lives in order” so as to avoid the burn-out of our busy lives. We have many packed schedules, commitments of friends, family and work, and duties and responsibilities that burden us day and night. If we would only reflect on what matters most and rank all other things in order of importance, we would be able to get a grip and manage our lives. Just do a cursory search for “time management” techniques to find many such strategies.

Such advice, however, does nothing to minimize our busyness, it only attempts to manage it. We remain busy and divided in our lives, and consequently the burdens of our lives are not relieved, they are just hidden. Let there be just one thing to trip up our techniques and schedules and the thin veil will be pulled away.

This is because the problem is not that we have failed to properly manage our time, the problem is that we have divided ourselves.

The Christian need not “prioritize.” The Christian does not have “many commitments.” Says Kierkegaard,

[Christian love] is no busyness, least of all a worldly busyness, and worldliness and busyness are inseparable ideas. For what is it to be busy? One ordinarily thinks that the manner in which a man is occupied determines whether he should be called busy or not. But this is not so. It is only within a narrower aspect of the definition that the manner is the determining factor—and this only after the object is first defined. He who occupies himself only with the eternal, unceasingly every moment—if this were possible—is not busy. Consequently he who really occupies himself with the eternal is never busy. To be busy means, divided and scattered (depending upon the object which occupies one), to occupy oneself with all the manifold things in which it is practically impossible for a man to be whole, whole entirely or whole in any single part, something only a lunatic can successfully do. To be busy means, divided and scattered, to occupy oneself with what makes a man divided and scattered. But Christian love, which is the fullfilling of the law, is whole and collected in its every expression, and yet it is sheer action. (Kierkegaard, Works of Love)

kierkegaard2This is how Kierkegaard understands both Christ’s beatitude: “The pure in heart shall see God” (Matt. 5:8) and James command: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8). To be “pure” in heart is to be unmixed in will and desire, as James contrasts it with the “double-minded.”

Only the pure in heart are able to see God and consequently keep near to him and preserve this purity through his keeping near to them; and the person who in truth wills only one thing can will only the good, and the person who wills only one thing when he wills the good can will only the good in truth. (Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing)

The Christian, therefore, has only one task: to will the good. All the Christian’s actions are related to loving God. As Kierkegaard defines Christian love: “For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another human being to love God is to be loved.” (Kierkegaard, Works of Love) This guides every Christian action, it is the only thing the Christian has to do. The Christian does not have a busy schedule—the Christian has a single task: love.

Or, as Christ commanded: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.”

The Success of Euclid’s ‘Elements’

Scuola_di_atene_07In a survey of books used for education throughout the history of Western civilization two books stand out: the Bible and Euclid’s Elements (Carl B. Boyer and Uta C. Merzbach, A History of Mathematics, 119). Poet and schoolmaster Edna St. Vincent Millay says of the Elements that “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.” And Euclid earned a spot amongst Raphael’s School of Athens painting alongside Plato and Aristotle. What can account for such high praise and popularity? Is it that Euclid has laid the foundations for all mathematics? If so, why has Euclid been left behind in the modern classroom? Is there any value in a return to Euclid? What value might there be in studying Euclid today?

It may be too strong a claim to say that the Elements provide the foundation for all mathematics. Nevertheless, the basic principles or axioms of many of the branches of mathematics can, in fact, be seen in Euclid. In the classical mathematical Quadrivium of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy, we see that Geometry is but one of the fundamental subjects of mathematics. Yet, in Euclid’s Elements there are applications and axioms for the other branches. For example, his earliest axioms like, “If equals be added to equals, the wholes are equal” have clear implications for the axioms (if not being identical) in Arithmetic. The proofs for relationships of ratios throughout Book X (and elsewhere) have clear implications for the science of Music which deal in harmonies and patterns. And certainly the principles of trigonometry that are laid down by Euclid have far reaching application from Astronomy to sea-faring to engineering.

200px-EuclidStatueOxfordYet Euclid does not specifically set forth the axioms of those other branches. However, to the student who is attentive, the Elements does teach an important principle concerning the nature of learning and of certain disciplines. In demonstrative sciences one always begins with axioms and definitions and then begins to reason from those assumptions. They are the grounds or conditions of the reasoning that follows. In this sense they are indemonstrable. To ask for such demonstrations is to misunderstand the nature of the science. For example, Aristotle in the Metaphysics, sets forth to show that the Principle of Non-Contradiction (the foundations of Logic itself) cannot and should not be demonstrated. To attempt a proof is to misunderstand the nature of proof, for one cannot prove it without assuming it. The best Aristotle can do in this case is show that it is impossible to deny, because to deny it, one must assume it.  In Geometry it would be improper for Euclid to attempt to prove that “a proportion in three terms is the least possible.” Rather, this definition functions as an assumption from which the proofs proceed.

As indicated from the example from Aristotle, Geometry is not the only science that proceeds in this fashion. The student who is attentive in his studies of the Elements should see parallels in other disciplines as well, such as the philosophical and theological sciences. Just as there are axioms of Geometry, so too are there axioms of philosophy and theology that are not subject to proof, but are the grounds from which reasoning proceeds. This may be one of the mistakes of Descartes in Epistemology: he attempted to assume nothing and prove everything. A task which is impossible, for all disciplines requires axioms. Even Moral Philosophy, of which Thomas Aquinas asserts the axiom of all action is: “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided” (Summa Theologica, II-I, Q. 92, A. 1).

This may partially account for the staying-power of the Elements throughout history, the implicit lesson about the nature and procedure of demonstrative sciences. In addition to this, the one who studies Euclid does not just study Geometry. For the Elements is also a lesson in the Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. That is, Euclid bridges the gap between the Trivium and the Quadrivium. This is also why Euclid may appeal to those persons who find mathematics difficult or intimidating. For as a modern student peruses the Elements they may be struck with how “unmathematical” it appears. There are no numbers, no Cartesian coordinate planes, no formulas. It is as much a book of literature as it is of geometry. This may account for the testimony throughout history of its elegance and beauty. For each of Euclid’s proofs begin with an assertion followed by the elegant “for if not” reductio ad absurdum and ending with pointed “the very thing which was to be shown” (Q.E.D.) or “the very thing which was to be done” (Q.E.F.). Thus, in the process of learning Geometry, the student also learns Grammar and Logic, as well as certain principles of persuasive argumentation (Rhetoric). This may also account for the popularity of the Elements in education.

Will Euclid ever be used again to the same degree as he was in the past? This seems unlikely for a number of reasons. First, there is a need for certain modern concepts in geometry like the Cartesian coordinate plane. Second, textbook companies have no incentive in publishing Euclid since the Elements is in the public domain. Third, the modern student (for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this essay) may no longer have the capability to read Euclid as an introductory text on Geometry. Yet, for the student who struggles with mathematics, Euclid may be a way to bridge the gap between the humanities and mathematics. And maybe, these students too may come to see that: “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.”

Of Idle Tales and Stupefying Joy

 

Resurrection Icon

Virgil Nemoianu claims that “‘Christian humanism’ is rooted primarily in the Gospels of Luke and John.” Nowhere is this more evident than the 24th chapter of Luke. In this remarkable chapter, Jesus’ tomb is discovered empty, Jesus appears to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, he has a meal with his disciples, and he ascends into Heaven—all in 53 verses. Yet, in spite of these tremendously important events, dare we say, the most important events of Jesus’ life, we are given little detail. The reader may be struck by the lack of specifics concerning these events, and we can only speculate as to why Luke did not take more space to explain just what happened in these last crucial days of Jesus after the crucifixion.

That Luke does not take the space to provide more detail may be an indication of the disciples own state of mind at the time. That is, Luke presents, in a quite literary fashion, the puzzlement of the events from the point of view of the disciples. None of them had expected the resurrection and they struggled to understand just what was happening. Their confusion is evident from the very beginning. When the women find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, “they were perplexed about this.” (Luke 24:4) When the women tell the disciples and others about this, they disbelieved the women. There is no blind credulity here that is often attributed to religious believers. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”(Luke 24:11) So convinced were they that the women’s story was an “idle tale” that only Peter went to investigate. He finds the tomb empty as the women had described and went away “marveling” because he still did not understand what was going on. Much like Joseph seeking to leave Mary when he learned she was pregnant, the disciples displayed the kind of common sense and healthy skepticism that critics of religious believers tout as incompatible with religious belief. Yet here it is present in the most devout of Jesus’ followers.

Even when Jesus appears directly to the disciples, they still do not understand. In fact, they think he is a spirit, a vision from beyond the grave. It is this encounter, along with Jesus breaking of the bread with the two he met on the road, that reveals the deep mystery of the Incarnation. For just what kind of being are they encountering? He appears and disappears at a blink, yet he has a physical body and eats and drinks. He is their beloved Lord, back from the grave and standing before them in the flesh. “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:38-39) At this, Luke says, they “disbelieved for joy.” (Luke 24:40) It is too much for the disciples to take, it is too good to be true, and so they doubt. Again, this is a reasonable, human response to the situation. The joy is beyond their comprehension, it simply cannot be. And so Jesus takes the time to eat with them, showing them that he is not some disembodied spirit, and to explain to them all that had happened as “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45) On their (and our) own, we are not able to understand. It takes the work of God to overcome our limitations and doubts.

The notion of Jesus’ resurrection and resurrected body is as stupefying to us as it was to the disciples. With the hope and joy in the final resurrection we are given a glimpse here of eternity, but the nature of this resurrection and resurrected body are still a mystery. Just what sort of body did Jesus have, and just what sort of body will we receive? Paul explores these notions at great length in I Corinthians 15. Resurrection means something more than mere resuscitation, a notion that was not foreign to Jewish beliefs. With resurrection we are given a new body, one at the same time continuous with the present body, and yet transformed and recreated. Heaven is not a place of disembodied life, but a life fully embodied and transformed. Such passages as these ought to go far in dispelling the notions of Gnosticism. To be human is to be embodied.

These are no “idle tales,”—they represent the full hope and joy of the Christian. The joy that is beyond both our deserving and our comprehension. Luke shows us the commonality between us and the disciples, and the reasonableness which ought to typify us. The Christian is not called to blind credulity, nor to pessimistic skepticism. For the former who lead them astray, the later would keep them from the truth. And the truth is in the promise of the resurrection, the promise of the fulfillment of human nature. There is no escapist philosophy here, but a philosophy of joy and hope grounded in truth.

The Incomprehensible Pleasure of Solitude

Aristotle claims that “the first principle of all action is leisure.” Many modern people would be tempted to agree with Aristotle, thinking that we work so that we may have things we like and do things that bring us enjoyment. Yet, if modern people knew what Aristotle had in mind by “leisure,” it is unlikely that they would endorse such a view. Today, leisure, is synonymous with “amusement” or “entertainment.” A search online for “leisure activities” is likely to return such things as amusement parks, sporting events, or any number of outdoor activities or vacation spots. Yet Aristotle would hardly reckon these among proper “leisure activities.” In fact, these activities are quite un-leisurely.

What, then, does he have in mind? For the Greeks, the word leisure is σχολή (scholē), from which we derive the word “school” (a fact that never ceases to confound students), and meant both “time free from labor” or “spare time,” and also the content of that spare time. It was defined negatively as “time not working” and suggested the proper activities that a human being should be about while not working. Furthermore, the negation of scholē, a-scholē, meant “busy,” connoting “busy at work.” The word scholē was translated in Latin as otium and likewise denoted “time free from labor” and like the Greeks, the Romans negated this work to suggest “business:” neg-otium, from which we derive the English word “negotiation.” In the case of both scholē and otium, the time for “not working” connoted time spent in learning, thinking, contemplation, reading, writing, etc. In essence, it was time set aside for the mind, not the body, to work. This, as Aristotle indicates, is the primary function of the human being. Similarly, Isocrates argues that “it is acknowledged that the nature of man is compounded of two parts, the physical and the mental, and no one would deny that of these two the mind comes first and is of greater worth; for it is the function of the mind to decide both on personal and on public questions, and of the body to be servant to the judgements of the mind” (Isocrates, Antidosis)

Leisure activities thusly understood mean simply cultivating and using the innate, universal human faculties in the discovery and performance of truth. They are activities distinguished from “amusement” in that “amusement” is aimed only at pleasure. Leisure, on the other hand, is precisely the time for “musing” or thinking, not “a-musing” or not-thinking. Leisure activities are anything but idleness, for they involve a great deal of effort by the mind. An effort that is fundamental to the very nature of humanity, yet one so difficult that people would rather abandon the endeavor altogether (and consequently their humanity) than to take the time to pursue truly noble ends. And “leisure,” says James V. Schall, “is the noblest name of all” (Schall, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 102). It is the noblest because it is what makes humans, human. Furthermore, these activities are ends in themselves, and not means to other ends, as is work. As Mortimer J. Adler points out, “Leisure activities, in sharp distinction from labor or work, consist of those things that men do because they are desirable for their own sake. They are self-rewarding, not externally compensated, and they are freely engaged in” (Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education, 100).

220px-Blaise_pascalThe inability to use free time for leisure is symptomatic of our inability to be human, and consequently to be happy. As Aristotle points out, we work that we may be at leisure, that is, that we may do those activities which truly become a human. As Adler says, “The good life depends on labor, but it consists of leisure … Leisure activities constitute not mere living but living well” (Ibid.). According to Blaise Pascal, that people cannot use their leisure time properly is what leads them to create a multitude of distractions and evils: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town.” (Pensées, 136) He continues,

That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible. That, in fact, is the main joy of being king, because people are continually trying to divert him and provide him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself. (Ibid.)

That quiet and solitude are “incomprehensible” for many people demonstrates their inability to use that part of them which is the highest, the mind. A person who cannot sit quietly with their own thoughts shows that he is at odds with himself, he cannot stand to be with himself. Certainly humans are not just their minds, but they are certainly nothing less. This incomprehensible solitude is essential for a flourishing human life, for the cultivation of the essentially human faculties can only be accomplished through leisure activities. Therefore, a recovery of leisure and leisure activities as something other than amusement is necessary for human happiness.

Xenophon’s Praise of Socrates

Would that some would speak thus of me:

Socrates was so useful in all circumstances and in all ways, that any observer gifted with ordinary perception can see that nothing was more useful than the companionship of Socrates, and time spent with him in any place and in any circumstances. The very recollection of him in absence brought no small good to his constant companions and followers; for even in his light moods they gained no less from his society than when he was serious.

~Xenophon, Memorabilia Book IV.

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Stretched Out Towards Knowing: Human Wonder and Knowledge

The wonder in a child’s eyes as they encounter the world for the first time is as exhilarating as it is unmistakable. It is the exuberance, delight, and astonishment of a young mind dazzled by creation. The dazzled young mind does not remain dazzled though, it is drawn out to know that which dazzles it. The child asks “why” incessantly, struggling to know this world in which he lives, this world which dazzles him so. This experience reveals something profound about human nature and the process of education.

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliAt the center of the child’s experience is wonder. Thomas Aquinas defined wonder as “a kind of desire for knowledge, a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or power of understanding” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 32, A. 8). As we see the fireworks, we might wonder as to how the pyro-technician is able to produce explosions of different colors, shapes, or sizes. When we hear a strange sound at night, we might wonder what kind of goblin is roaming our house. As we reflect on ourselves, we might wonder why we exist at all! This experience of wonder reveals an essentially human characteristic, for of all creatures, humans alone wonder. These feelings of wonder are an essentially human phenomenon. As Philip Melanchthon muses, “Who is so hard-hearted…that he does not sometimes, looking up at the sky and beholding the most beautiful stars in it, wonder at these varied alternations…and desire to know the traces…of their motions?” (Orations on Philosophy and Education, 106)

As Thomas’ definition suggests, humans can wonder, because they can know. Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the claim that “All men by nature desire to know” (980a22). This translation hides an interesting dimension to Aristotle’s claim. For the word here translated as “desire” is the word ὀρέγω (orego), which does not simply mean “desire” but “stretch out, extend” and in this context could be rendered: “All men by nature are stretched out towards knowing.” Humans are stretched out but also must stretch themselves out to live in according with this nature. As Aristotle says, humans “must, so far as we can…strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us” (Nicomachean Ethics, 177b33-34). The mind is, as James V. Schall says, capax omnium—capable of knowing all things (On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 15). It is in human nature to be pulled towards and to strain towards truth, for only truth can be known. Both Plato and Aristotle cite wonder as the cause of or the beginning of all philosophy (wisdom): “This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy” (Theaetetus, 155D) “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (Metaphysics, 982b12-13).

At this point, we are still missing an important part of wonder. The Latin word for wonder, admirare, comes into English as “admire” or “admiration.” Yet, wonder is not admiration, for admiration suggests a distanced response to something worthy of respect. Wonder, on the other hand, involves the wonderer. The wonderer is not a distance observer, but a participator with those wonders. As involved in the process, the wonderer experiences a great pleasure. This pleasure is not simply that of amusement (far from it!), but a hope that that which causes awe in us due to our ignorance can come to be known. Again, says Thomas, “wonder is a cause of pleasure in so far as it includes a hope of getting the knowledge one desires to have. … Wonder gives pleasure … in so far as it includes the desire of learning the cause, and in so far as the wonderer learns something new.” Wonder, therefore, is intimately linked with hope. For, if there is no hope that the wonderer will come to know the object of his wonder, the only result is despair. Consequently, any belief system which denies that knowledge is possible, or that truth is attainable by the human mind, must be a system of despair; and must chastise the child that wonders.

If this desire to wonder and to know is innate in human nature, why then do many people stop wondering as they grow? A full treatment of the decline in our wonder is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to suggest one possibility. As we grow, we sin, and as we sin, we violate our very nature. The effects of this will vary as individuals vary, but one of the effects is often the diminished desire for our very nature to develop. We lose what G.K. Chesterton calls, “the eternal appetite of infancy” (Orthodoxy, 58) The world becomes a wearisome and tiresome place, because we are wearied and tired of ourselves. We are born, as Wordsworth puts, “trailing clouds of glory … [and] Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” But as we grow up, we grow old and can no longer see Heaven around us.

The question now becomes, what is to be done? How are we to recover this eternal infancy? How are we to grow up, without growing old? The answer must partly come from education. Education of the kind that does not dull the mind into submission, but which liberates it from opinion and ignorance, and feeds it on truth, goodness, and beauty. Then, and only then, is the mind freed to continue wondering, knowing, and delighting in the process as it matures. Furthermore, as the mind matures, it’s capacity to wonder also matures and so too does the delight in knowing. In short, we become more human, more of what we are, more of what we were intended to be.

Boredom Is Inhuman

It is an interesting fact that only humans get bored, and I say that people only get bored when they fail to be human.

Boredom appears to be a kind of restlessness that occurs when one does not know what to do when there is nothing to do. By “nothing to do” I mean nothing “compulsory” (work, labor, etc.) and when no form of amusement presents itself—when I’ve done all my work, when there is nothing on television or at the theater that I care to see, and when all my friends and family are otherwise occupied. Keep this understand of “nothing to do” in mind, because by it I do not mean that there is actually “nothing to do”. Boredom occurs when I do not know what there actually is to do apart from the things mentioned above (work, amusement, etc.).

And this is what makes Boredom essentially inhuman. By “inhuman” I mean “goes against the essence of humanity.” What does it mean “to be human”? What distinguishes humanity from all other beings? No doubt this question goes well beyond what I can cover here, but let me put forth the mild assertions that what makes humans, human, is the ability to think, to reason, or to know. If that is so, then thinking well is the highest activity a person can do and that our ultimate happiness consists in an activity of the mind. What a person is saying when he/she says, “I’m bored,” is essentially, “I do not know how to be human,” or “I do not know how to think”. Because, for the person who can think and learn for themselves, there is never a time when there is “nothing to do.” As Mortimer Adler says, “[it is] the mark of the happy man…that you never find him trying to kill time” (Adler, “Labor, Leisure, and Liberal Education,” 1951).

Only humans can get bored because only human can know / think. It is when I do not know how to learn, how to become more human, more of what I am, that I get “bored”.

So, to all my students who, finding themselves out of school for the summer and without a job: exercise you mind. You have been given an amazing gift of leisure time, time to become more human, time for contemplation and reflection.

Our society enjoys more “free time” than any other society in history. It is a simple fact that prior to the industrial revolution the vast majority of humankind spent their lives in work and sleep, with no opportunity for leisure. We have been given this amazing gift to explore the universe and our own minds, both of which provide for infinite growth and possibilities. And what do we do with all this free time? We say, “we’re bored, there’s nothing to do”!?

What an absurdity! What a denial of life! What an inhuman thing to say!

Going to College So That We May Learn to Live Well

The least important of all the the reasons for going to college and trying to get an education is that it will help one to earn a living. … There may be other reasons for going to college, but unless the chief reason is to learn what needs to be learned in order to live well, in order to lead a decent human lie, then one might have been better off, perhaps, not to have gone to college at all.

~Mortimer J. Adler, Education and the Pursuit of Happiness

Given what goes on at most colleges, Adler is right. Students often see college as a time of experimentation rather than formation, and the experimentation that goes on is destructive to the soul. Better not to go and save one’s soul.